The purpose of this paper is to explore the question: Why do academic professionals and universities surrender their individual and institutional autonomy? This paper looks at the case of National University Corporations (NUCs) in Japan. It traces how they have progressively surrendered their institutional autonomy and acquiesced to the demands of government through the lens of sociological institutionalization and new institutional economics (principal-agent theory). The main findings of the analysis are as follows.
Firstly, this paper identifies a principal-agent relationship not only between government and national universities, but also within NUCs. In national universities, president and boards are principals and faculties are their agents. This nested structure of PA relationships is characteristic of NUCs. In this context, the erosion of individual autonomy emerged under reforms to the school education act, which prescribes the function of faculty meetings, constraining its role in academic affairs and educational matters such as admissions and graduation.
Secondly, this paper also examines responses to coercive isomorphism in NUCs. The national government, as principal, is identified as a force for coercive isomorphism. Using its role as the provider of contracts, it exerts pressures to conform to the recommendations of University Council and Cabinet Office, and engenders a focus on economic growth and efficiency of management through mid-term plans. As a result of such coerced isomorphism, the mid-term plans of 86 National Universities are virtually identical despite the variable strengths and institutional missions of each national university.
Thirdly, the National University Corporation Law as a form of discipline defines only general outlines of university structure and governance. Many finer points such as financial burdens are left to the operational discretion of government. As a result of the incomplete nature of these contracts, the Ministry of Education’s status as funder encourages NUCs to exercise self-discipline and conform to the funder’s expectations, which further surrenders individual and institutional autonomy of NUCs to the government.